September 23, 2010
By Randy Dotinga
National Public Radio host Michele Norris set out to write a book about the nation’s hidden conversation about race. She ended up unraveling the secret painful history of her own African-American family.
Her father, a World War II veteran, returned home to Alabama only to be shot by a white cop. Norris never knew until more than 60 years after the shooting and decades after his death.
She also discovered that her grandmother peddled pancake mix around the Midwest while dressed as Aunt Jemima, then a “mammy” character who made slavery seem positively bucolic.
Norris’s family left the past behind even as the age of self-exploration dawned. Norris explores the costs of keeping quiet in her new book “The Grace of Silence.”
I talked to Norris (whose first name is pronounced Me-shell) about her “accidental memoir.”
Q: How did learning about your father’s shooting change your book?
I found myself doing research about 1946 Alabama and couldn’t let that story go. Over time, I realized that I needed to follow my interests and my passion and what became my obsession. I had to pivot and write an altogether different book, not about how other people talk about race but about my own family’s racial legacy.
Q: Your description of growing up in Minneapolis makes your family sound a bit like an earlier version of the Huxtables of “The Cosby Show.” Were they as ideal as they seem?
I now understand that my parents wanted to make sure that we were seen as a model family in the way we carried ourselves and presented our homes to the outside world.
What I discovered was that there were some things that I didn’t fully understand as a child in that model home. There was a silent tornado in our home, and it led to the breakup of my parents’ marriage, or at least contributed to the breakup.
It was something that I didn’t see or recognize or even feel fully as a child, but it was there: things that my father experienced and things that my mother experienced but that they didn’t talk about.
I always knew that I was shaped by all the things that my parents told me – eat your peas, do things and don’t do other things, their admonitions. What I didn’t understand was how I was also shaped in fundamental ways by the things they never talked about.
Q: What did you learn about your parents and their unwillingness to talk about how they felt?
That was generational, and we’ve changed a lot. They didn’t talk about their feelings or their emotions the way people talk and tweet about them now.
It had its benefits and its costs. It’s amazing to me, now that I know what my father experienced, that he was able to move forward and leave that behind.
But I don’t think he ever left it behind. I have this image of him carrying around this weight that none of us can see, that he knows is there, dragging it around with him.
Q: You write that your family was obsessively circumspect, always trying to be perfect in every way to avoid giving anyone a reason to look down on them. Did that seem controlling?
It felt natural. It didn’t feel oppressive. That was just the way it was. That was also part of the culture at the time: women dressed to go to the grocery store.
But my parents obviously took it to another step. They were trying to send a message to the outside world. That message lives in my DNA.
Q: What lessons do you hope your book imparts to your children?
The book has given them a history that is theirs, a history that I didn’t fully understand when I was their age or even well into adulthood.
I hope they have the courage when the time comes, when they’re old enough to have adult conversations, to ask my husband and myself, my sister, their aunts and uncles on the other side, about their lives. I hope we have the courage to be honest with them and think about what we tell them.
Our parents always tell us what they think we need to know. No parent wants to weigh down their children’s pockets with rocks if they want them to soar. They’re not dishonest. There’s no malevolence in that, and they’re not necessarily trying to withhold information for bad reasons. But at some point as adult children, perhaps you can handle that information. It’s a shame if you don’t capture that history before it’s too late.
Q. What does the title of your book mean?
I settled on this title after learning about my father’s shooting, and the path he traveled as a man who returned as a veteran from World War II and faced a white wall of resistance, and a policeman’s bullet that grazed his leg.
When he was a postal worker later, he was known as a guy with a real sunny disposition who always had a kind word and a bright smile. He was not angry, at least not outwardly.
He was part of a generation of black men and black veterans who were marginalized in the military and society and had every reason to be angry. It was easy to see how they’d become malcontents and grouse their way to their end of their lives. Instead, they decided to live these lives of utter rectitude. They set aside their personal grievances in order to help America become a better place, and that is an incredibly graceful act.
Randy Dotinga is a frequent Monitor contributor.